From South Africa to Shelby

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By Ryan Conley

South Africa has for years impacted the Saddlebred industry with horse and human talent, and the new Singing Hills Stable in Shelbyville is a prime example of that country’s growing influence on Shelby’s scene.


Gene and Annalize van der Walt are the managers and part-owners of the 22-acre training and breeding operation located off Taylorsville Road, coming to Shelby County from their native homeland following an 8-year stop in Oregon.

South Africa to Oregon to Kentucky? With apologies to the Grateful Dead, it was a long trip, but not altogether strange.

“We used to spend summers out here for the summer circuit, do the 2,500-mile trip here, stay three or four months, and after the World Championships, do the 2,500-mile trip back,” Gene van der Walt said of frequent trips from Oregon to Kentucky. “We did that for eight years. It got to be, ‘Hey, what are we doing wrong here?’

“We don’t have the marketing prospects out there. For us to be able to market these horses better, we had to come where the business is.”

But before the van der Walts even thought about coming to Oregon in 2002, where they came to work for Singing Hills Stable founder and co-owner Bill Blacklaw, they had long thought about leaving South Africa for Kentucky.

Saddlebreds are popular in South Africa (“They’re the second-largest breed behind Thoroughbreds,” Gene says), and the annual National Saddle Horse Championships in Bloemfontein is regarded as the largest single-breed outdoor horse show in the world.

But many South African horsemen have known for years that Kentucky (in general) and Shelby County (in particular) is where the action is for Saddlebreds. And Gene van der Walt was no exception.

“I was one of three or four guys to come out here and work here in the 1980s,” said van der Walt, who in 1986 worked for a year in Kentucky under the late Tom Moore, the legendary trainer in Harrodsburg. “It kind of became something that most kids did when they got out of school: go to the States and work at a horse farm. A lot of kids come out here and rub horses and then go back, and study to be doctors or lawyers, or whatever.

“It’s helped the Saddlebred in South Africa, because of the knowledge [gained], but also because a lot of those kids decided they wanted to work with Saddlebreds.”


South African champion

South African-bred Saddlebreds have won some major events in recent years, highlighted by world grand championships in the prestigious 5-gaited class by Casey’s Final Countdown in 2007 and Zovoorbij Commander In Chief in 1997. The latter, which was owned by Ann and Tom Dupree, was trained and presented by Redd Crabtree of Simpsonville.

“He was a refined horse but very strong; you couldn’t make him tired,” Crabtree said of the first South African-bred horse he ever trained. “I haven’t been over there, but they are generally very, very strong horses. They have added strength [through breeding bloodlines] that some of our horses don’t have.”


A migration

Gene van der Walt, who is the only trainer to have won all four national grand championships in South Africa (3-gaited, 5-gaited, fine harness and single harness), is the second head trainer from his native land to join the Shelby County horsemen ranks in recent months.

Lionel Ferreira and his wife, Georgia Bulmer Ferreira, established Monnington Farm near Simpsonville earlier this year, although Lionel Ferreira moved here after a 10-year stay in England.

Other South Africans are already employed locally as assistant trainers or blacksmiths, and a few other head trainers are looking at coming to Shelby County, said Edward “Hoppy” Bennett of Undulata Farm in Shelbyville.

Bennett said the van der Walts bring healthy competition to an already strong local Saddlebred industry. “Singing Hills was a dominant force on the West Coast,” he said.


Expanding the stable

The Singing Hills property was purchased last November from Louisville native and former major-league baseball player Matt Anderson, who pitched from 1998 to 2005 for the Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers and who still owns more than 350 adjacent acres, according to local property records.

Blacklaw, who resides in Oregon, and the van der Walts have invested heavily into the Singing Hills Stable operation on Taylorsville Road, using Fister Construction as the local contractor.

Renovations were done to the existing 20-stall barn and apartment, and improvements include a 50-foot-round pen training area, groom’s quarters, an equipment barn, a 12-stall broodmare barn and a reproduction lab.

“The lab is Annalize’s kingdom,” Gene van der Walt said of his wife, who along with sharing training duties, handles such reproduction procedures as artificial insemination and embryo transfers.

Singing Hills Stable has about 50 horses, including 20 training horses, a dozen broodmares and an equal number of foals. Nearly all of the foals are sired by the late South African import Dorian Warrior’s Song, who won many titles for Singing Hills.

One such offspring, 2-year-old stallion Warrior’s Aftershock, will compete for the first time this week at the world championships in Louisville.